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"Cooking isn't creative, and it isn't easy. It's serious, and it's hard to do well, just as everything worth doing is damn hard."
As I fumbled along as a home cook in the early 90s, I devoured each issue of Cook's not just for the obsessively tested recipes of mostly American classics, but for the wealth of information on fundamental techniques and weird, anal-retentive tips (remove cauliflower blemishes with a rasp grater!). Cook's is great for beginners. But the more you cook the more you realize many, if not most, of these focus-grouped recipes turn out fine, but rarely exceptional. OK, the foolproof pie crust is exceptional, but usually there is no room for serendipity or creativity. It's cooking by committee, and the results are frequently bland and dull.
I wonder what would have happened if I had a couple books by Michael Ruhlman back then, specifically Ratio and The Elements of Cooking, both of which provide the cook with the barest fundamentals—making stock, using simple formula to make bread, burn your gadgets—and the means to build upon them. They're basically designed to help the cook escape the tyranny of the recipe, after which all manner of miracles can occur.
Ruhlman is in town this weekend, with coauthor Brian Polcyn, to host a series of events to promote a new book, Salumi: The Craft of Italian Dry Curing. It's a follow-up to their influential book Charcuterie, this time focusing on the more advanced practice of curing things like hams, lardo, and coppa, and endless variations on them. Once again it's a book on fundamentals: starting with the butchering of a whole pig—something you can read about later this week in my column—and ending up with products as varied as paletta cruda, nduja, and lonza cured with orange and fennel.
There are just a few chances to get in on the demos and workshops happening this weekend. On Friday Rob Levitt from the Butcher and Larder will be butchering a pig at Floriole Bakery with Ruhlman and Polcyn providing play-by-play. It's $95, includes a signed copy of the book, and as of yesterday, there were three spots left.
On Saturday they'll be doing a dry-curing demo at Publican Quality Meats from 1 to 3 PM and offering samples of Polcyn's charcuterie. That one's free and requires no reservations, so it's bound to be packed.